Are You at Risk for Heat Stress?
“One hundred million Americans broil in extreme heat.”
“Heat wave cooks much of the country.”
The personal experience of you and your employees may not need these recent news headlines to confirm that all of us are in the midst of a scorching summer.
This is the time when indoor worksites are hotter for employees and when outdoor workers--as well as vacationers and yard-working homeowners--swelter in high temperatures under direct sunlight.
This summer’s heat is a hazard that can affect your health. I generally read about heat stress illnesses either in occupational health and safety news journals or in online safety and health news reports. However, when a heat stress illness struck closer to home--my neighbor recently suffered heat cramps when doing yard-work--I started to pay more than the usual attention to heat stress-related issues. Without a doubt, working or being in hot conditions can pose special hazards and risks to our health and safety.
Indoor operations involving high air temperatures, radiant heat and high humidity, such as in iron and steel foundries, brick firing and ceramic plants, bakeries and also outdoor operations involving exposure to direct sunlight and hot weather such as in construction, landscaping, and farming, all greatly increase the potential for heat related illness. When the body becomes overheated, a condition of heat stress exists that can lead to a number of problems, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps, fainting or heat rash (prickly heat). Here, we take a look at each:
- Heat stroke is the most serious related disorder since it occurs when the body becomes unable to control its core temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the sweating mechanism fails and the body cannot get rid of the excess heat. Permanent disability and even death is the result, if a person is not given proper treatment promptly.
- Heat exhaustion occurs when a person sweats profusely and does not drink enough fluid or take in enough salt or both. As a result the person feels weak or tired, and appears pale and clammy.
- Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur when a person sweats a lot from strenuous activity thereby depleting the body’s salt and moisture levels. Low salt levels in tired muscles causes the painful cramps.
- Heat syncope is a fainting episode or dizziness that usually happens to someone who is not used to working in the hot environment and simply stands around for a long time. Dehydration and lack of acclimatization are generally the factors that contribute to heat syncope. So drinking fluids and moving around (not standing still) will reduce the likelihood of fainting.
- Heat rash (prickly heat) is a skin irritation caused by hot and humid environments where sweat cannot evaporate easily.
So if we are exposed to extreme heat, sun exposure and high humidity, what basic steps can we take to prevent heat stress?
- Wear light colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as cotton, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.
- Drink water and/or sports drinks frequently; avoid alcohol and drinks with a large amount of caffeine or sugar.
- Take frequent rest/breaks in the shade or a cool area.
- Wear sunscreen (if working outdoors).
For more information on occupational exposure to heat, please visit OSHA’s website: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/index.html
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